Women in Italy

Italy (Lake Country)
Italy (Lake Country)

As a high school kid in San Francisco, my wife-to-be arranged to spend a year as an exchange student in Italy. As an undergrad at UC-Berkeley, she did it again, and after earning a graduate degree in costume design at Brandeis she went for a third time. To this day, she can watch unfamiliar Italian films without the subtitles.

In fact, on the third trip, while living in Rome, she got an under-the-counter job in he Italian movie industry, making use of her graduate training to design costumes for a number of films, including “Sacco and Vanzetti ,” based a U.S. case involving Italian immigrants controversially convicted of murder.

For another film, she was pressed into duty as an actress. To explain her American accent, she was given the character of a US woman who had come to live in Italy. Being Italian, the director made her a countess. Her main job in the film was to chase around a country kitchen, and throw eggs at, a female guest who was making eyes at the countess’ husband. The seductress was played by a real actress from England, Vanessa Redgrave.

My wife found this situation so ridiculous that she kept laughing during the scene and the film editor was able to use shots of her only from the back. As a fledgling actress she thus failed in the best of company.

While in Rome in the late 1960s she fell in with a group of feminists. One of them borrowed a wedding ring and applied for a license to celebrate women on Mothers’ Day by mounting an exhibition in the Piazza Navona. The man in charge of giving the license obviously assumed that the women were going to celebrate the traditional “mama.” But around the famous Fountain of the Four Rivers, the group set up posters showing the exploitation of women. Until 1970 it was even impossible to get a divorce in Italy, and until 1978 it was illegal to get an abortion even during the first 90 days of a pregnancy.

I don’t know whether my wife enjoyed more chasing Miss Redgrave around a movie set or helping to embolden local women to claim their rights. As a painter, she has subsequently celebrated women in, for example, her series on “The Red Shoes.”

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